Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Thousand Names by Django Wexler

I'm just going to come out and say it, military fantasy and science fiction isn't really my bag. I prefer my combat scenes one on one and I'm not a huge fan of massive battles full of flanking maneuvers, artillery exchanges, and the like. Imagine my surprise when I found myself totally engrossed with Django Wexler's tale of a military campaign, The Thousand Names. Wexler's debut was a hasty add on to my list of books I'd like as a birthday gifts at the end of the summer, and it took me a long time to get to it. I'd noticed the buzz surrounding the novel, but hadn't read any reviews and only glanced at the description before deciding to give it a go. I'd enjoyed Brian McClellan's Promise of Blood, and Wexler's book looked very similar. I couldn't have been more wrong.

The similarities between the two novels, are superficial at best. Both are fantasy, but McClellan's novel focuses more on the magic systems and supernatural threats while Wexler's is a much more gritty exploration of a protracted military campaign that would feel right at home in a historical fiction novel. Fans of Bernard Cornwell will likely find much to enjoy in the The Thousand Names, as will fans of fully realized characters and intricate yet still personal battle scenes. To be a bit less specific, genre fans of all stripes could do far worse than give Wexler's debut a few hours of their time. This is an almost flawless start to what promises to be an excellent addition to any bookshelf.

The Thousand Names focuses primarily on the Vordanai Army stationed in faraway Khandar.  After a rebellion displaces the Prince of Khandar, the Vordanai are forced to retreat to a broken down fort on the coast. When ships from home finally arrive, the troops expect to return home, their exile to the miserable country finally at an end. But the new head of the Vordanai forces, Colonel Janus bet Valnich has other plans. He plans to restore the exiled prince to his rightful throne despite the vast difference between his small force of exiled soldiers and green recruits and the seemingly endless number of religious fanatics and Vordanai trained turncoats. By all appearances he is a clever, if excentric commander and all of the veterans know that it's the clever ones that get their men killed the quickest.

Wexler's narrative focuses primarily on two of the officers under Valnich's command. Captain Marcus d'Ivoire is uncomfortable in his new role as the right hand of the new Colonel suspects that Valnich might be mad, and is certain that there is far more to his plans than winning a losing battle against impossible odds. A true patriot, Marcus must do his best to keep the men under his command alive while following Valnich's often maddening orders as the Vordanai advance on the capital.  A favorite of the veterans, Marcus must balance his loyalty to the chain of command with his friendship with his fellow officers, most of whom are certain that following the Colonel will lead to certain defeat and a guarantee of a  grisly death.

Winter Ihernglass,  joined the army to escape her past. She has kept her secret by keeping her head down and avoiding the notice of her fellow soldiers at all costs. When she is unexpectedly made and officer, she finds herself forced to take the reigns of leadership and earn the respect of the men under her command. No longer able to live in the shadow of others, will she be able to keep her secret safe and do her duty at the same time.

The interesting thing about Wexler's approach to character is that none of his character appear to be anything but fairly standard archetypes. There is nothing especially noteworthy about either of his viewpoint characters, at least not in the sense of the run of the mill fantasy characters. Drawing a page from George R. R. Martin, Wexler makes his characters people first and foremost by adding in the ordinary instead of the extraordinary. In some ways, I'd say Wexler does it better, by eschewing the level of power and privilege that is enjoyed by the mostly noble cast of A Song  of Ice and Fire. I was much more afraid for Marcus and Winter than I ever was for Daenerys or Jon Snow, at least until Ned lost his head.

The secondary cast are not quite as well realized, but many of them seem poised to become point of view characters in the next volume. Young Corporal Bobby Forester and Lieutenant Farus serve as excellent counterpoints to their respective commanders and all but demand more screen time. Feor, a native priestess who finds her lot thrown in with the Vordanai and Jen Alhundt, the clerk and possible spy who is sent to report on Valnich's progress also come with their own secrets and serve as foils to the main cast as well.

One cannot discuss the supporting cast without talking about Colonel Janus Valnich. The eccentric genius of the head of the Vordanai forces is undercut with just enough absentminded detachment to render him less than superhuman. With his tendency to keep his true plans close to his vest, Janus remains enigmatic but likeable even as his true purpose remains obscured. I'm reminded simultaneously of Sherlock Holmes, and Grand Admiral Thrawn.  I can't wait to see if Wexler decides to show us the world through his calculating eyes in the sequel. I can't decide whether that would be a good idea or not, but it's easy not to second guess a writer this good.

For a novel that is essentially a military one, Wexler has a surprising number of female characters, all of whom are not simply their to serve as lovers and friends to their male counterparts. Winter, while not a top-tier fighter comes across as a compassionate and capable commander despite her lack of experience. All of the female characters have agency and chart their own courses throughout the book through use of their strength and intelligence rather than through their sexuality. Genre writers of all levels of experience could take lessons from Wexler's deft handling of these characters and the genre as a whole would be improved for it.

For all of his deft characterizations, Wexler's debut is packed with action. Other than the first hundred pages which are a little slower as the relationships and plot points are established, The Thousand Names jumps from engagement to engagement. The pace is breakneck and readers would risk exhaustion if Wexler didn't wisely insert a character moment, a bit of sinister magic, or a revelation of yet another secret at just the right moment to let the reader breathe.

The action sequences are handled with such an obvious understanding of tactics, troop movements, morale, and chains of supply that they never feel repetitious. If I didn't know better, I could easily imagine that Wexler has military experience. But despite the focus on strategy and tactics, Wexler keeps the battles firmly grounded in the personal experience of his characters. The results are a string of visceral and pulse pounding battles that have real consequences on not just the tide of the campaign but on the characters as well. I prefer my action one on one, and I'll admit to being worried that these mass battle scenes might leave me cold. I couldn't have been more wrong. Wexler writes the best large combat scenes I've read since Bernard Cornwell.

And lest you think, this is a military novel with nothing more than imaginary genre sounding names, Wexler adds in the purely fantastic by adding magic to the mix. While it only begins to impact the narrative in the second half of the novel, as we learn more about the artifact that gives the novel it's title, the magic of Khandar is powerful, unique, and unsettling and there is no doubt that there is more in store in the coming installments in the series. One wonders how our decidedly normal cast of characters will deal with the supernatural threats they are guaranteed to face.

If the length of this review doesn't make it clear, I loved this book. Being not particularly fond of historical fiction or military fantasy, Wexler had his work cut out for him, and he delivered on every level. With compelling characters, mysteries and secrets around every corner, and battles that are so vivid that you can almost smell the smoke and hear the impact of musket balls on flesh, The Thousand Names is a debut you shouldn't miss. Django Wexler has earned his spot on my must read immediately list from this point on.

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